My first meeting with Sarah Bell, yoga teacher and now voice coach for yoga teachers was an accidental one. We ran into each other at a restorative class on a gray wintry morning and I mentioned that YogaCity NYC was interested in doing an article on her voice work called Speaking of Yoga. The first step, she told me, was to begin audio recording my classes. “Do a bunch so that you get comfortable with the microphone being there and then you can choose which one you want me to listen to.”
It had been a while since I'd thought much about the way I use my voice. In my teacher training days, I remember a lot of emphasis on word-choice and using language to instruct asana clearly and effectively. And there was some work to connect to that inner voice that motivates our teaching even when things are challenging.
But somehow the physical apparatus of the voice and how it connected to my breath and my sense of self remained uncharted terrain. As Bell put it “We spend so much time thinking about the asana, we don't always think about how what we are saying, and how we are saying it, is affecting our students. Often our voice patterns hold us back from being fully open in front of them. I want to help facilitate a stable, clear, healthy and spacious container for each teacher's wisdom and expression; all in service of transformation—for the students!”
After taping a full week worth of classes, I sent one to Sarah Bell. That week, she also came in to observe (and listen to) me teaching and we set a date to meet and discuss her observations.
This work for Bell, arises from her experiences as a theater major at the University of Illinois. While there, she was told her voice was limited by nodules on her vocal cords. She underwent surgery, but they returned and she was forced to learn a new way to use and relate to her voice. From this experience, she has turned her creative efforts to crafting workshops and one-on-one coaching that she calls Speaking Yoga. This still in-process program combines her experience and knowledge of the voice with a yogic lens through which to view the way we communicate to our students.
Armed with new attention to my voice, we met at her place to discuss her recommendations. She brewed me a blend of herbal tea to soothe and lubricate my throat as I mentioned that I had found the process so far to be challenging on a deeper level than expected. “The voice can be bound up with our personalities and our sense of self” she told me, “so it is important to keep in mind that it is a practice.”
“The first step, is simple awareness. I hope to help you shed light on some of your habits of communication as you speak about yoga to your students.” Through Bell's observations, I began to get a sense of the habits and patterns she had observed such as lack of enunciation and blurring of words. She is quick to emphasize that she is not a speech pathologist. “My job is not to diagnose or to fix things that are going wrong, my intention is to help teachers find the support they need for their voice.” Toward the end of our session Sarah ran me through a few exercises to begin to find that support including reading lines of text to distinguish clearly between sounds, and practicing speaking a full thought with one full breath.
Sure enough, after only a few days, my awareness began to sharpen to some of my default speaking habits, including difficulty differentiating between an 's' sound and a 'z' sound. Fortunately, I was able to work with Bell again about a week later to continue the practice of integrating my voice more fully with my teaching practice.
This time, we started with warm-ups for the hips, ribs, shoulders, neck, jaw, face, that loosened up the areas where both breath and voice need to move through. One of my favorites was to deliberately yawn to create space for resonance in the roof of the mouth. Now that I had developed some awareness of my own tendencies, she continued to help me distinguish between the sounds that were being blurred as I taught. She emphasized adding in new patterns rather than trying to “break” old habits.
Finally, we worked with the breath. In a simple but profound moment of wisdom she explained, “the breath you use for doing triangle pose is not the same breath you use for speaking to a room full of people.” This may be an obvious statement, but it struck me profoundly. The breath you need to speak loud and clearly requires a short, full, efficient inhale and slow exhale, controlled from the abdominals.
As we finished up our session she elaborated, “in instructing, we must be so skillful and practiced with the breath and voice that it is second nature - that our attention is off ourselves and...focused on our students. The voice is a vehicle to help guide. If the voice is hampered or in some way compromised, then it becomes a thing outside of the student that they must work to hear or understand in addition to everything else they're working to DO. My aim is to guide teachers in the path to minimize the obstacles to being clear – clarity of tone, meaning, vibration, and intention.”
“As yoga students we get very habituated to long slow controlled breaths in and out, but this is not what is needed to speak yoga. Ultimately it is the same breath...but the approach is different, the demands on the muscularity are different.” So for our final exercises Sarah had me do breath exercises that would encourage supporting the voice from underneath. To that end, she instructed me to release my exhale completely and wait for the inhale to arise spontaneously. This allowed full, deep inhales to arise quickly that could be released as voice.
One of the main things I learned in exploring my voice is that an assertive, well voiced statement that is supported by breath will actually serve my students and myself better than letting my voice trail or wander. It is still very much a work in progress, but already I've noticed a difference in my classes when I can speak with clarity. Like all of the practices that help to make our teaching more integrated, voice begins with awareness. From awareness we can begin to hone our skills more and more not only to better voice habits but to communicating with our students in an open and honest way. If we can do that, it seems to me, we move from speaking of yoga to speaking with yoga.
To contact Sarah Bell about upcoming workshops or one-on-one sessions visit her page on Facebook.
--Alex Phelan teaches anatomically influenced and alignment conscious yoga in New York City.
--Illustration by Shelby McChord